Fewer ferry sailings means less work for many AMHS employees

The ferry Malaspina docks in Skagway Aug. 25, 2017. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

State budget cuts reduced the amount of service provided by the Alaska Marine Highway System this winter. Right now only four of the 11 ferries owned by the state are in service. The limited sailing schedule not only affects passengers but ferry employees as well.

Craig Allen works as a bosun for the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS). He first joined AMHS in 2005.

“I chose the ferry system because it seemed like a viable option in Haines to provide year round work and an income that could take care of a family,” Allen said.

When he’s working he supervises the deck crew’s general maintenance on the ships and oversees loading and unloading of cargo. He has a permanent position on the Malaspina, but that ship is in layup indefinitely.

“It means that I’m displaced…The more senior people go to work first,” Allen says.

With 14 years of AMHS experience under his belt, Allen has some seniority. He gets calls from dispatch to fill in when a crew member can’t work unexpectedly.

When that happens he needs to get to a larger port like Juneau or Ketchikan to start work on the ship. With limited winter transportation from his home in Haines, he has lost out on opportunities to work on Southeast Alaska ferries like the Tazlina.

“I was supposed to, but I couldn’t make it because of the most recent winter storm we had. I couldn’t travel to Juneau to start the assignment, so someone on on-call status was able to take that position and work it,” Allen says. “I had to then therefore use personal leave to gain an income,”

Allen is part of the InlandBoatmen’s Union (IBU), which represents about 400 AMHS employees.

IBU spokesman Rob Arnold says that about 120 IBU members are working on the ships that are in service right now.

“All 400 of our members are rotating through these ships. The ones with seniority are working. The rest of them are probably looking for other jobs or on unemployment or just not working at all. We’ve had a lot of people retiring,” Arnold says. “I have a concern about summertime if we’re going to be able to even crew up the ships with the majority of the ships running.”

Sailing the ships is only part of the work though. During the winter some crew members perform maintenance on the ships that are docked. However, this year’s budget cuts have reduced the number of those maintenance jobs.

“Normally the IBU will come in and do all the maintenance and painting, but we haven’t been able to do that because of the budget,” Arnold says.

The number of people employed by AMHS is declining. According to Department of Transportation Spokesperson Meadow Bailey, 768 people work for AMHS. That’s about 250 fewer than there were 5 years ago.

Allen says the makeup of the AMHS crew is beginning to change as well. Employees who have been with the system for a long time are exploring other options.

“It is becoming a system that has younger individuals or rather individuals with less service time because there is less capability to have long term or year round employment with the system,” Allen says.

AMHS employee’s ability to work depends largely on funding. Last year the legislature reduced state funding for the ferry system by $43 million. Governor Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year provides flat funding for AMHS.

In the spring, the Department of Transportation commissioned research firm Northern Economics to examine options for reducing the state’s financial obligation to the marine highway. The research firm’s report is expected to be released this month.